If these walls could talk: Backstage stories with Philip Roth, Aretha Franklin and more - 92Y, New York

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If these walls could talk: Backstage stories with Philip Roth, Aretha Franklin and more

Mar 21, 2019

As part of 92Y’s backstage production team for 24 years, and now its lead, Walt Taylor has worked thousands of shows in 92Y’s legendary Kaufmann Concert Hall. It’s his team’s job to ensure that every aspect of each production—from load-in to lighting, sound, set and stage design—are on cue, on time and on point. In his role, Walt has interacted with luminaries and legends from every sphere—from heads of state to superstar entertainers and literary giants. Here, Walt shares some of his favorite backstage memories.

How R&B legend Ruth Brown helped him land the 92Y gig

The first production I worked on was Jazz in July for Dick Hyman. But on my second day, Ruth Brown, whom I’d worked with for years, walked in for another show the Y was producing. During the rehearsal, the Stage Manager said to her, “Well don’t leave yet because we have to go over the curtain call.” From working with Ruth previously, I knew she had bad knees, and I heard her reply: “Oh no, I have to sit down right now. You just tell Walter where Ruth is supposed to be, and he’ll make sure she’s there … because Walter’s been taking care of me for a long time.” When Ruth left, the Stage Manager said, ‘You working tonight?’ So, Ruth Brown really got me in here.

I was in the green room with Paul McCartney … That was a “pinch-me” moment.

Walt Taylor

The time Sir Paul McCartney tickled the ivories in the green room

I was in the green room with Paul McCartney and he goes across to our house piano and starts to play what sounded like the beginning of “Obla Di Obla Da.” But then he busts into what sounded like a 1920s/30s-style English folk song and I realized that the beginning melody of “Obla Di Obla Da” is probably based on this formative folk song from his youth. So, there he was playing it just with me in the room. That was a “pinch-me” moment.

An unforgettable conversation with Kurt Vonnegut

We used to have a photo of Dean Martin holding a martini glass and posing with that certain debonair look. One night, I hear a voice behind me say, ‘What a sad picture of Dean Martin.” I turned around, and there’s Kurt Vonnegut looking down at me. It’s just the two of us. And the only words I could muster were, “It’s his… it’s his, you know.” I must have repeated that 50 times. But once I was able to collect myself, we went on to have a long conversation about that picture. Somehow by the end of it, he was able to help me see something I hadn’t seen in the photo before. There we were, just the two of us having this conversation about Dean Martin, and I’m looking around and thinking, would someone please come by and see me having a conversation with Kurt Vonnegut.

How Allen Ginsberg saved the day for Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer was getting ready to do a reading onstage and told me a story from years ago, about another time he’d come to 92Y to give a reading. His new book—the book he was planning to read—was considered at the time to have very controversial language. Mailer had agreed with the Y to end the reading before the strong language—and also agreed that if he did find himself venturing into that part, the curtain would come down. Of course, that’s exactly what happened. And of course, the audience protested. But what surprised me most was that the person rallying the audience was Mailer’s friend Allen Ginsberg, shouting, “This is censorship!” Mailer told me, “My friend Allen wasn’t afraid of anything.” For me, that’s the real gem: discovering that the super macho Mailer viewed Ginsberg as his hero.

That time Philip Roth was Saul Bellow’s “Chair-man”

Saul Bellow came here very late his career, so it was a big deal for everyone. A guy in a suit from his publishing company arrives right before the event and wants to try out chairs that Bellow will be seated in on stage, since Bellow was older at that point. We went back and forth on chairs of every type—wide chairs, tall chairs, short chairs, different arms, different legs, different styles, etc. Finally, we picked a chair and I put the other chairs away. Then another guy in a suit arrives from the publishing company and the first guy looks at me sheepishly and says, “I’m sorry, can I see those other chairs again? I want to get his opinion.” And we went back and forth, back and forth yet again. And I said, “Don’t worry, we want this to be right too.” And he says, “That’s so sweet. I haven’t even introduced myself. My name is Philip…Philip Roth.”

On getting pranked by Jerry Lewis

We were having an 80th birthday event for Jerry Lewis. Right before the event, I’m still trying to get the cues right and I get the notice that Jerry’s here and needs the backstage elevator. That elevator only fits two and is in the basement. So I rush downstairs and Jerry’s there with his entourage. I said, “Listen everyone, there’s only room for two of us in this elevator, but security will take you right upstairs and Mr. Lewis and I will take the elevator and meet you there in 60 seconds. So, Mr. Lewis and I get on the elevator and there’s a big heavy door that needs to lock properly for the elevator to engage, and there’s a special key for it. I shut the door and notice that the special key is missing. It’s just Jerry Lewis and myself and I’m thinking now I’m going to have to run all the way upstairs across the stage, and hopefully find the key. I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t even think. So, I look at him, and I look away, and I look at him again… and I think to myself: “what am I going to tell him? I’m going to have to leave an 80-year old legend in the elevator in the basement by himself?” Right at that moment, he smiles at me, reaches in his coat pocket, pulls out the key and says, “As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to have it.”

He was an all-time favorite for me and the stagehands. He was always willing to spend some time chatting with me. It was just the kind of person he was. And he had a great sense of humor—many people don’t know that about him.

Walt Taylor, on Elie Wiesel

On an all-time favorite guest, Elie Wiesel

He was an all-time favorite for me and the stagehands. He was always willing to spend some time chatting with me. It was just the kind of person he was. And he had a great sense of humor—many people don’t know that about him. One day, I was on my way to work and on the radio, they were saying that Professor Wiesel was giving a eulogy for a big statesman who had passed and giving the opening address at a major assemblage in different cities in Europe that morning. I thought, wait a minute, he’s going to be at the Y tomorrow, how’s he going to swing that? The next day, in walks Professor Wiesel, and understandably he looked really tired. So I said, “Gee Professor, how are you? You look a bit tired.” And he replied, “Well, a friend of mine had a funeral and I went to a meeting, and now I’m here, and tomorrow I have to teach.” And I said, “Well at least with school there’s some flexibility in your schedule—you can move classes or cancel.” He stopped and turns around to look at me with a very serious expression on his face. It took me back, as if I had said something inappropriate. He said, “Oh no, no. I never would miss a class. Teaching is what I do. The rest of this, I do when I can.” I thought that was tremendously revealing about who he was. 

On giving the “Queen of Soul” R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Aretha Franklin was coming here and a good friend of mine who’s done a tone of production work around the world and had worked with her gave me some advice. He said, “That R.E.S.P.E.C.T. thing. It’s real with her, so go formal.” On the evening of the event, they were late getting her, and about 20 minutes before showtime, she finally arrives. As soon as she walks in, I hear her say, “I really haven’t stopped all day, and I desperately need to eat before I go on.” I’m thinking oh man, we’re already running late. So, they go and get her food and I keep checking in on her. And our head of Talks keeps coming by and saying that we really need to start. Finally, I said, “We can start as soon as Ms. Franklin is ready.” At which point Ms. Franklin turned and looked at me and said, “Ok, we can start now.” That advice from my friend really helped.

The night Joy Behar brought the house down with an impromptu stand-up routine after Carol Burnett fell ill on stage

Carol Burnett was here with Joy Behar and the place was packed. They came out on stage and the place went wild. Within the first few minutes, I heard Joy say to Carol, “Are you OK?” And Carol said, “No I’m not feeling well, I don’t know what it is.” Carol was having some kind of reaction or something. Joy said, “Well, let me take you back to the dressing room, don’t worry about a thing.” and proceeded to escort her off stage. When Joy came back, she did 40 or 50 minutes of the greatest standup we’d ever heard to a sold-out audience, all without even having a minute to prepare. All of us were left with such respect for the way she handled it, and she was unbelievably funny. It ended up being such a wonderful evening. Of course, when Ms. Burnett came back some months later, she was phenomenal, and everyone had a wonderful time.

On his all-time favorite 92Y moment

Meeting my wife.

Categories: 145th Anniversary
Tags: Jazz in July